Stealing Coal – Laurann Dohner

Explosions hurt Coal’s ears and he realized he probably wouldn’t escape the Earth shuttle before it blew up. His feet pounded down the hallway and he didn’t dare slow, taking a blow to his shoulder when he slammed into the corridor wall. He bounced off and kept going as the lights flickered around him until he entered an open lift to take him one floor down. The doors sealed and he clenched his teeth, hoping the power didn’t fail completely. He’d be sealed in the small room, something he feared, trapped there to die. The lift dropped quickly and then jerked to a halt. Doors slid open and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He sucked in smoke-filled air and moved forward quickly, fighting a cough. Hope flared in Coal that he might make it out alive. Loud, angry voices drew him and he increased his pace, ignoring the burn in his lungs from breathing the contaminated air. He rounded a twist in the ship’s belly and nearly ran straight into the small group of people clustered there. Coal studied the two cyborgs locked together in an obvious tense moment. Ice had a council member pinned to a wall but he jerked his arm up to point at Coal. The weapon aimed at his chest lowered a second later. “Coal? What are you doing onboard? You should be back on the Star.

” “With my damaged implants I couldn’t connect to the shuttle computer.” Humiliation hummed through Coal at having to admit his weaknesses. While he guessed the other cyborg males knew his flaws, stating them aloud made the damage inside his head a little harder to take. He touched the scars on the back of his head, pushing away the memory of being strapped facedown to a hard surface and the pain he’d suffered while a female operated on him against his will. He’d been able to ignore the agony at first but once the implants were destroyed it had screamed throughout his body until he realized the terrible sound had not only reverberated in his mind but had actually passed his lips. He shook off the memory and continued, “I couldn’t bypass the doors that locked me inside a storage room when I entered it in search of the remaining bots. It seems some doors you may enter but need a code to exit. What is going on?” Coal’s gaze darted between the cyborgs and he wondered why they were obviously ready to engage in battle. “No time to explain.” Ice shot a glare at the council member, pure rage on his features, but then his expression softened when he turned his gaze on the attractive human woman.

Fascination transfixed Coal while he watched Ice and the female argue but he didn’t see anger. He saw pain, fear, and heartbreak exchanged between them. It struck him 6 Stealing Coal immediately how strongly those two were attached to each other. He swayed a little on his feet when the gravity stabilizers on the shuttle weakened but then returned to normal. His mind worked quickly, assessing the situation. Only two pods remained but four of them stood in the hallway. Ice wanted his woman to get inside a life pod to jettison to safety while the council member wanted to leave her behind. Zorus wasn’t a stranger to Coal. The male had fought hard to free Coal from the female cyborgs who had forced him to be a breeder for them, using his seat on the cyborg council to assure that Coal got away from his abusers. Zorus had raged at the females over their treatment of a fellow cyborg in front of Coal, standing up for him.

He’d even talked to Coal privately, offered friendship, and shared information—they had a common bond. Coal’s abusers had been female cyborgs while Zorus had survived similar abuse at the hands of humans. Coal had appreciated the council member sharing his secrets to give him a sense that he wasn’t alone in suffering the memories that haunted him. Coal’s full attention shifted to Ice. They didn’t know each other well but he knew he could count him as a friend. His gaze lowered to the small female. The human stared at Ice with such raw emotions it stunned Coal. She really loved a cyborg. A human—one of those who’d attempted to kill the entire cyborg race—pleaded with Ice while openly admitting her feelings. The life pods were set up to support one life each.

The gravity of the situation hit as Coal did the math. His eyes closed with the realization that two needed to die to give two a chance at survival. He’d wanted to enjoy freedom, get to know his cyborg brothers, and become part of cyborg society. He’d been denied any sense of happiness by the females of his race when they’d crashed on the surface of a planet after escaping their own executions on Earth. His life had just begun anew when he’d found his cyborg brothers and for the first time in decades he’d been given the opportunity to embrace life with joy. His eyes opened in time to witness Ice knock Zorus out cold with a punch. “Give him to me.” Coal reached for Zorus, a decision made. Ice and his woman loved each other and they deserved a real shot at a future together. He and Zorus were emotionally damaged, probably not salvageable anyway.

Coal’s body couldn’t be repaired and Zorus had a bitter heart that rarely showed any emotion except rage, perhaps incapable of it after all he’d gone through. “You both need to escape now. I’ll stay behind.” Ice didn’t move. “Coal, you and Megan are taking the life capsules. I’m staying behind with Zorus.” It amazed Coal that anyone cared that much about him and only asked for Coal to protect his human from the council as a thank you for his sacrifice. Ice…trusted him. Amazement nearly floored Coal over the sheer magnitude of anyone willing to die so that he might survive. He felt honored.

7 Laurann Dohner Coal listened as the woman pleaded with Ice. She was willing to die with him before she’d leave him behind. Coal moved before he changed his mind. His fist slammed hard into Ice’s face and he watched silently as the cyborg slumped to the floor with the already unconscious Zorus. He bent and grabbed Ice under his arms. “Open a pod. I’ll place him inside it and you take the remaining one. When he wakes, tell him to live a happy life for me, and that will make us even. I kept my promise. I protected your life since you won’t be in any danger with a live male in your family unit.

” The woman activated a pod. Coal inhaled. “The fire has spread inside the walls, into the electrical conduits is my best estimation. It’s just a matter of time before the damage is so severe that no life will be sustainable. We don’t have much time. Open it.” The pod slid out fully from the wall and the woman activated the lid to open it. Coal adjusted his hold on Ice’s large body, cradling him enough to lift him over the edge and settle his body inside. The human only hesitated for a second before she climbed in after him. “What are you doing?” Perhaps she didn’t understand the specifics of the life pod.

“These are designed for one individual.” “If he wakes before we’re picked up, he’s going to freak out and may get himself killed. If I’m on top of him I can keep him calm and still.” She paused. “And I’d rather risk both our lives than just leave you behind to die.” Coal released her. A human willing to risk her life for mine? Amazing. She’d rather die than be parted from the cyborg she loved. A burning sensation in his chest caused pain as he watched her gaze at Ice beneath her. Pure Love.

That emotion showed so clearly on her features that he knew he wasn’t misreading it. Coal identified the source of his ache with one emotion of his own. Envy. No one would ever look upon him that way. “You’re brave.” “Actually, I’m scared shitless. I don’t want to die, but if I do, I’m with Ice. It’s the only way I want to go out. Is it just me or does this thing look similar to a deep coffin? Talk about irony, considering I might die in it.” Coal smiled.

“I’m going to put myself and the council male into the last pod so we at least have a chance of survival as well. Good luck, Megan. You’re worthy of Ice. He’s a good male who I am honored to call friend. Tell him that please.” “I promise. Thank you.” When she jettisoned away he turned, staring down at the council member who had fought to give him freedom. They both deserved a chance to live and to possibly one day find happiness. As long as they breathed, they had hope.

Ice had clocked the male hard, a lump already formed from the blow he’d received. Coal dragged the male out of the way, activated the life pod to open it, and gently dumped the unconscious Zorus inside. 8 Stealing Coal He hesitated, not wishing to ever be locked up again but then the entire shuttle shuddered under his boots and around him. The acrid smell of burning wires threatened to choke him as it grew stronger. The shuttle emitted a high-pitched alarm, warning of imminent destruction. He climbed inside the tight space, lying chest to hip to thigh with Zorus, and activated it. The lid sealed closed and the pod launched hard. The sick feeling in his gut assured him the pod shot away from the shuttle into space. “Emergency life capsule activated,” a female computer stated. “I am currently triangulating our location and will make exact calculations to set course to Earth.

I will send distress signals for pickup of any Earth vessels we may come into contact with as soon as we are within transmission range of one. I am currently not showing any on radar.” Frustration roared through Coal. “I am ordering you to abort your protocol.” The life capsule computer hesitated with her response. “State authorization codes.” “Damn it,” he roared, attempting to wake Zorus but he remained unconscious. Only Zorus could remote hack into the computer to change her programming. “You need to cut engines and turn this thing around now. You’re taking me away from my people.

You’re going to get us killed. Do you understand? If you don’t stop we will die.” The computer didn’t respond. Coal roared out in rage, his fingers curling into fists, unable to do anything as the life capsule headed straight for Earth. 9 Laurann Dohner Chapter One It’s not my problem, Jill told herself, looking anywhere but at the center of the cargo bay. It became difficult not to repeatedly glance at the gray-skinned, mostly naked male, strapped down flat on his back and secured to a freight-loader table. What are they going to do to him? Is he a cyborg? She had no answers to the questions nagging her thoughts. “My men just double-checked the manifest.” The captain of the large C-class freight carrier smiled at her but his attention fixed on the front of her shirt. He didn’t even try to hide his interest in her breasts.

“Everything is accounted for. I’ll transfer the payment if you just put your thumb here.” She moved closer and held her breath once she got a whiff of the man’s obnoxious odor. He was another man who didn’t care about personal hygiene, something she’d discovered often, unfortunately, in her line of work. She pressed her thumb down on the electric pad he held out and hid the wince as it jabbed her with a small needle to take a sample of her DNA to confirm her identity. She pulled her hand back, the machine beeped and she read the acknowledgment flashing on it as it completed the transfer. “It’s been good doing business with you, Captain Raul.” She quickly stepped back, putting space between them. “Now that the business part is over…” He flat-out leered at her. “What would you say to some pleasure?” He winked, shoved the pad under his arm, and took a step closer.

“I haven’t seen a woman who looks as good as you do in at least a year. I could do all kinds of things to you. I hear redheaded women are fiery in bed.” She fought the urge to lose her breakfast and resisted the snort that attempted to rise. The guy had to be absolutely delusional if he thought she would be interested in having sex with him. She forced a smile when she met his gaze. “Sorry. It’s against the rules to fraternize with clients. Big Jim killed the last guy I hooked up with. You’ve heard what a mean bastard he is.

He believes if I sleep with someone then he can’t trust him anymore to do business with me.” Fear caused the man to take a quick step back. Jill relaxed. Her father had a widespread vicious reputation and was the only reason she hadn’t been killed―yet. If they knew he’d died a year before and that she really ran his trading business now… She hid a shudder of fear, just considering the possibilities of what would happen. A lone woman dealing with the lowest forms of humanity wouldn’t have lasted a week without being raped or sold into sexual slavery at a space whorehouse, and eventually killed. It could be brutal in space. 10 Stealing Coal Her com beeped and she looked down. Right on time. She pushed the button.

“I’m hurrying, Big Jim. Please don’t get mad. They aren’t screwing with me and the transfer just passed. Check it yourself. Please don’t blow up their ship.” The captain of the freighter got a wild look as he backed up more, bumped into one of the boxes of food she’d just offloaded, and nearly tripped. “Hurry up,” a gruff male voice snarled. “I’m in a bad mood today and would love to kill shit. I’m monitoring every move you make. You need to undock my shuttle now to make the meeting point with my warship.

” The com beeped, signaling the end of the connection. Jill peered up to see the effect on the man who’d just hit on her. He paled and his fingers gripped the electric pad so hard she wondered if he’d break it. “He sounds mean.” “He is. Everything you’ve ever heard about him is all true.” She pretended to be terrified. “I gave him coffee he didn’t think I made hot enough last year and he broke my arm in two places. I once saw him skin a guy alive for cheating him out of a crate of gel fuel.” The lies were easier to tell with a lot of practice.

“He enjoys killing.” “You need to go now.” The captain paled more. “It’s good doing business with Big Jim. Please tell him we appreciate it a lot and hope to do it again soon.” “I will.” Male laughter had Jill turning her head to discover the source. There were four crew members surrounding the bound gray-skinned male on the freight table. One of them punched the helpless man in the stomach. The sound carried as fist hit flesh.

She inwardly winced. “Don’t mind that.” Jill hesitated. “Is that a cyborg? I’ve never seen one before. I didn’t even know there were any left alive.” “It was the damnedest thing.” The captain’s voice grew excited. “We were hailed by this life capsule. You know the law about having to respond to all emergency beacons and intercept them. We scooped it up and there were two of them inside.

” Glancing around, she frowned. “I don’t see the other one.” “You won’t. We contacted Earth when we found them to see if they were worth anything, hoping to score a big reward. I only told them I had one, you know, in case the government tried to pull any shit and they did.” Anger tinged his voice. “They sent a damn warship right at us and forced me to hand it over to them. That one they didn’t know about.” He gave her a wink. “I’m real smart.

” And heartless, mean, and a total jerk, she silently added. “What a brilliant plan.” “You know how Earth is.” His lip curled. “Damn Government these days. I long for the old days before it all turned to shit when they began telling everybody how to live. The last straw for me happened when they started charging fees for surviving past a hundred and ten. It’s a sad day when you literally can’t afford to live there. They send 11 Laurann Dohner out death squads to kill older folks if they can’t pay up. They seized my cargo, spouting off some law I never heard of, claiming I had their property illegally.

My ass. They just didn’t want to pay for him. I would have fought it but they threatened to blow us up.” “That’s why I don’t live on Earth anymore.” She tensed when she witnessed another crew member hit the restrained cyborg. He didn’t make a sound but she knew it had to hurt. “Aren’t you afraid they are going to kill him?” “Naw. Those cyborg bastards are tough and my men are just warming him up. He needs to learn how to handle pain. I’m taking him to the Arris Station.

They offered me real good money for him.” Oh shit. The Arris Station had become well known and feared. If they were selling the cyborg there his lifespan would be pretty short unless he happened to be super tough. The station broadcasted their twisted form of entertainment out to paying customers everywhere in the galaxies. They usually used criminals or mutated space pirates to put inside a locked cage together to fight until one died. The death matches were said to be so brutal most official programming signal senders wouldn’t carry the option to buy the feed. “Want to see him up close? I kept this one because he’s got scars and looked meaner. The other one was kind of pretty and I figured he didn’t fight much. I made a good deal with Arris.

They really wanted him bad when I sent a vid of him. I not only get a flat-out payment but a small percentage of however many fights he survives.” Jill hesitated. Pity welled up inside her for the poor cyborg. Soon enough he’d find himself in a living hell far worse than the one he currently had been dealt. The captain took her silence for agreement and started to move toward the flat freight-loader table, leaving her to follow. “Come on.” The crew torturing the poor gray-skinned male moved back, all giving Jill’s body a thorough examination when she stopped about five feet from them. Her gaze wandered slowly over the biggest man she’d ever seen. They’d chained his arms above his head, stretching them high up, and muscles bulged in his thick biceps.

His skin—a warm, sleek metallic gray—reminded her of the bulkhead color on her shuttle. She stared into his dark, furious gaze. She forgot to breathe as they studied each other. He had really pretty eyes, though fury darkened them. They appeared nearly black under the bright, overhead cargo lights but she knew they weren’t. They were probably deep brown. A low growl came from his parted, full lips, drawing her focus to them. There was no denying his handsome looks—in a rugged, strong-boned sort of way. The cyborg reeked of an overload of testosterone in her opinion. “See why I kept him? Doesn’t he look vicious?” The captain and his offensive stink inched closer to Jill.

“Those are grade-four steel chains. He broke free twice from the lower density ones. He’s a strong bastard and on his feet, he’s six feet five—we measured him for the Arris. He weighs in at two hundred sixty pounds.” 12 Stealing Coal “That’s big,” she agreed automatically. Her gaze lowered to his massive chest. She hid her horror at seeing darkened skin there that she identified as bruises. The crew had definitely been pounding their fists on the unfortunate cyborg. His stomach tensed, showing ridged muscles from his rib cage to the waist of the black, baggy shorts he wore. Her throat dried and she swallowed at the sight of how firm and in shape he appeared to be.

She’d never seen anyone that muscular. “We had to shoot him with five doses of knockout drugs to get him down. He’s got a high tolerance to them so we’re hoping it’s the same for his pain threshold.” She nodded, unable to speak. His thighs were substantial, muscular limbs and his legs were bent at the edge of the flat surface, his ankles chained by more steel, securing them at the bottom of the freight carrier table. Her gaze jerked back to his face when he growled low again. “Like what you see?” He had a harsh, deep voice that sounded damaged. No one spoke that way, that roughly, unless something bad had happened to their larynx. They must have hit him there as well. Shivers ran down Jill’s spine when she realized the cyborg was speaking to her.

He glared at the captain next. “I will break free and kill more of your men. You will all die when my friends come searching for me.” Holy shit. Die? The captain took a menacing step forward and shook a first. “I lost four good men, you freak. You really want to taunt me?” “I’m going to tear you apart with my bare hands,” the cyborg promised calmly. “Shut up,” the captain snapped. “You want my men to get the shock sticks again?” He suddenly grinned at Jill. “Want to see something fun?” He turned his head and nodded at one of the men.

“Get them. Light his ass up for her and show her how he jerks around. It’s amusing as hell.” “No!” She backed up and then realized her mistake as all heads swung in her direction, their frowning faces staring back at her. Shit! Her reactions needed to live up to being a heartless bitch who worked for the meanest, nastiest, bloodlusting trader ever born. Watching someone be tortured should have been something entertaining to the character she played, not horrifying. She thought fast.


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